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Before rail, architects seek to protect, promote Tampa's oldest cemetery


Five years from now, you could ride into Tampa on a sleek bullet train, slowing from 168 mph to step out and gaze at the graves of 13 former mayors, Civil War veterans, a mass burial from a bout of yellow fever and even a couple of pirates.

In a microcosm, Tampa's future mingles with its past.

The meeting place is a high-speed rail station planned next to Oaklawn Cemetery. It's the city's oldest burial ground — probably Hillsborough's oldest still existing, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator for the Tampa Bay History Center.

The rail will stretch from Orlando to Tampa with just one stop in Hillsborough, off Morgan and Scott streets downtown. If things go as planned by local historians, the cemetery stands to be a gateway feature of the station.

But before rail comes, some insist that the cemetery's history must be preserved. Jason Busto has generations of ancestors buried here and wants to see the graves of Tampa's pioneers protected. Still, the Tampa native sees the value in moving forward.

"Rail is a serious economic development and job creation engine," he said.

Others want the sensitive area shielded from the massive construction, and later vibrations and dust from rail traffic.

A local branch of the American Institute of Architects is seeking a historic designation from the city to protect and promote the cemetery in advance.

Gus Paras is co-chairman of the committee driving the effort. "If approached creatively," he said, "the cemetery and the station can co-exist and be mutually complementary."

• • •

As plans for high-speed rail progress, members of the AIA began discussing concerns about the cemetery last month.

It deserves the designation regardless of the pending rail station, Paras said, but protection before construction begins is critical.

In January, President Barack Obama promised $1.25 billion in federal stimulus dollars to build the rail system. The work has already started, with aerial and ground surveys completed, according to the Florida Department of Transportation's high-speed rail website. Soil testing crews are working in the median of Interstate 4, and engineering and design work will begin soon.

Tampa's station is planned at the site of the former Morgan Street jail. A second stop is planned in Lakeland and three more in Orlando.

Preliminary station design is planned within the next six months, and construction on the rail project could start in February or March.

At Oaklawn, meanwhile, efforts are plodding along. When designating historic sites, complications tend to increase with the passage of years.

Such is the case here, said Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic-preservation manager.

Technically, the cemetery is two parts: The city owns the south portion; the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg owns the north end. With dual owners there are potentially twice as many issues to iron out for the historic designation.

Fernandez is planning a meeting with representatives of both parties so they can identify any snarls.

"What makes this unique," Fernandez said, "is that it's still an active cemetery. There are still plots empty."

The designation request will most likely come before the city's Historic Preservation Commission in July or August, he said. If the commission approves, Fernandez expects the designation process to take about six months.

• • •

Oaklawn Cemetery was founded in 1850 as a public burial ground. At the time, it was about a mile from the village of Tampa, which had started in 1830, said the history center's Kite-Powell.

Oaklawn, he said, "is probably the oldest man-made area still existing, probably the oldest landmark in the city if it were a landmark."

The history center has several maps of the cemetery, including one from the 1860s, when many people died of yellow fever and were buried en masse because of fear of spreading disease.

Maps detail plot owners, including who could be buried where, with space set aside for pirates and slaves and paupers.

"It was pretty much where you were buried if you died in Tampa," Kite-Powell said.

But time hasn't been kind to Oaklawn Cemetery.

As the city engulfed it, the cemetery suffered from neglect and became home to the homeless. Vandals debased stones and stole decorative ironwork from the cemetery, said Maureen Patrick, president of the Tampa Historical Society.

Patrick leads tours of the cemetery while dressed in traditional mourning attire. She points out veterans of seven wars and tells people it is seventh in the nation in the number of Confederate burials. Many think the first burial was of a slave, she said. Two pirates were buried soon after — the only cemetery in the world with such a boast. The founder of Ybor City, Vicente Martinez Ybor, is here along with gangster Charles Wall.

Civic leader William Ashley and Nancy, his African-American servant and presumed common-law wife, are buried in a common grave etched with these words: "In the grave all human distinction of race or caste mingle together in one common dust."

Recently, Busto, 39, walked between broken stones and missing rails, pointing out stones bearing his ancestors' names.

He traces his family back five generations to Dominico Ghira, the first native-born Italian to make his home in Tampa in 1849, according to Busto's research. Ghira was a seafarer who became a saloon keeper and wealthy real estate investor in Tampa. His daughter, Josephine, married Alfred Parslow, a writer and architect who designed the Academy of the Holy Names and many of the city's cigar factories. Busto said Parslow came to Tampa with the railroad that made it a modern city in the late 1800s.

Busto, a businessman, believes in respecting Tampa's roots while building a globally competitive city. "As it was in the past, I think rail is critical to the future prosperity of our city and region," Busto said. "But we have to do it smartly."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or

Before rail, architects seek to protect, promote Tampa's oldest cemetery 06/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 4:31pm]
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